Why do we work? On the face of it, this probably seems like a silly question. We work because we have to, we work to make money, we work because that’s just what we do after college. But the bigger question here, the one that you need to start reflecting on, is why do you work? We each have different motivations for why we show up to work every day, and for why we show up to this job and not another one. Why do these motivations matter? Well, it’s pretty easy to get excited about work during the first few weeks. It’s something new, you’re learning a ton, and you may feel, for the first time, like an actual adult. And then, well, work can become work. As you settle into a routine and become familiar with the day-to-day aspects of what you are supposed to be doing, you may discover that it’s not all that exciting, and that you aren’t actually putting your degree and your intellect to use in the ways that you anticipated.
Work is actually pretty hard. By that I don’t mean beyond your capabilities. But, there is a reason that it’s called “work” and not “spa,” or “fun.” We came up with another term altogether to describe the exchange of effort and compensation that happens through work. Whether you are tending a farm, building a spreadsheet, managing a project, or leading a team, there is a desired and expected amount of energy and effort input, in exchange for an expected amount of compensation output. At its most basic level, this is what work is: the process by which we pay for and consume our lives.
And, to a certain degree each of us wants for our work and our efforts to mean something to us, because work is also very much tied up with who we are. It’s how we define ourselves: I’m a teacher; I’m a lawyer; I’m a consultant. It’s how we place value on our lives. And that is why it’s so important for you to identify why it is that you work and why you have chosen to work where you are. Because that why is what will keep you motivated well after the newness wears off.
A number of years ago a group of researchers, led by Amy Wrzesniewski of Yale’s School of Management, identified the three primary orientations, or motivations to work. Those with a job orientation see work as a means to an end, allowing them to pursue other interests in their personal lives. Those with a career orientation are motivated by achievement related to upward mobility. And those with a calling orientation align their work with their personal identity, which is how they find meaning. In this country, we tend to privilege those who are pursuing a career or following a calling. But many of us are just working a job, myself included, and there is nothing wrong with that. Maybe, like me, you have a great passion outside of your daily work (for me, it’s writing), and you enjoy having a job that provides a lifestyle that allows you to pursue that. Or, maybe you really need to pay down some student loans, and so you sought out an opportunity that would put you in the best position to do that.
The point is this: there is no right orientation or motivation to work. What’s most important is identifying what your motivation is and beginning the process of reflecting on it. And, let me note here, these orientations can and will change over time: as you gain experience, as you become more clear on who you are and what you value, and as you move in and out of different seasons of life (for example, when you have kids, or when you take on different work responsibilities). It’s all OK, as long as you are being true to who you are and what’s important to you.
And, it’s important to note that this place where you are right now probably isn’t the dream job. This is just the first job and the first of many. Life is a journey of becoming, of getting closer and closer to that thing you might eventually call “the dream;” through a series of experiences that help you to distinguish between those things that you like, and those things that you don’t. It’s all data to help you make more informed decisions about how you want to spend your time and your life. When you first enter the workforce, you simply do not have enough data yet.
If that’s true, where do you start?
- Do what you’re good at. What are your strengths? What are those things that seem to come naturally to you, or that you can do with little effort? Look for roles that allow you to do those things as much as possible, with opportunities to grow into areas that aren’t as strong or as familiar to you.
- Do what you’re interested in right now. It’s completely OK to take a role that aligns with your current interests, even if you can’t forecast how that will play out over a career. Remember, it’s all data. Your next experience will help inform the one after that, and so on. Stop trying to figure out the next twenty years. Simply figure out what’s next.
- Do what you like. Chances are, if you are doing something that aligns with your strengths and interests, you will be doing something that you like. Whether it’s the industry, the mission of the organization, or the environment that you get to work in, you should find something that you like, and find a way to do more of that.
Culture and Fit
The term “fit,” when it comes to work, has become particularly charged in recent years, as it often can be used as a reason to interject real bias into employment decisions (i.e., “He/She/They are too black/female/gay/etc. for our organization” becomes “He/She/They just aren’t a good fit for our organization”). Anyone on the hiring side of the equation must be careful when using this sort of language, and anyone who is seeking employment should pay attention to its use.
But for you, as a new employee, the role of culture and fit is an important one, no matter your race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or other factors. As you just read, part of the experience of being a working professional is collecting data – on what you do and don’t like about work; what you do and don’t like about your organization; what you do and don’t like about the ways in which you and others are managed; as well as on your strengths, interests, and growth opportunities – and this is particularly true in your first few months. This is a great time to pay attention, to listen and learn, to reflect deeply on these items, and to think about how good of a “fit” the organization is for you.
Organizations are made up of people, and that means that organizations have cultures and values which are shaped by those people. Wherever you are there is most likely a set of values, either on a website or hanging on the wall, and your leadership may even make a decent effort to integrate those into systems and processes. And there is always another layer, which are the actual lived values of a place. How do people interact? How is the space used? What happens when someone is successful? What happens when someone fails? How is feedback delivered? These are all great questions to ask yourself, and to ask others, as you start to gather data on the place where you work.
Some other questions you should start to ask yourself about this place include:
- Do I feel like I belong here?
- Do I have what I need to be successful in my role?
- Do I know what is expected of me?
- Do I feel safe here?
- Am I happy here?
- Do I feel like my manager and co-workers support me and care about my growth?
- Can I identify three or four goals that I should achieve in the next six months?
If you can, discuss your answers with your manager and ask for their input and feedback. This is a great way to start building a relationship and to demonstrate your interest in your own growth and future.
Making the Most of Your First 90 Days – At Work
The first three months of any job, whether you’re fresh out of college or an experienced professional, can feel a bit like drinking from a firehose. The good news-bad news is, this won’t be the last time that you’re in this place, because this won’t be the last time you’re new in a job. Even if you stay with the same organization for the next forty years, which is increasingly unlikely, or even if you are in a profession like teaching that seems like it will never change, at some point you will take on a new role within that organization, take over a new project, add on administrative responsibilities, or in some other way feel like the new kid again. The good news-good news is you will get better at it.
Don’t forget to give yourself some grace. Imagine for a moment that someone just told you that you had been hired as a professional athlete in a sport you don’t play, or as an artist or a musician when you’ve never performed in those ways before. Would you expect to be an expert, right out of the gate? Or would you expect there to be a learning curve, and seek out guidance and tools and resources to help you learn and get better?
Starting work in any other field isn’t all that different. Sure, it may not take the innate talent of the artist or the skills of a professional athlete, but there will be a learning curve. There’s no reason why you should expect to be a competent, skilled, experienced professional on day one. No one is! Your colleagues know more than you because they’ve been there longer than you, and they’ve had time to learn the rules and norms of behavior, expectations for success, and what to do when they screw things up. You need to give yourself the time and the opportunity to do the same. And, recognize that these first few months are some of the best time to do this work, because everything is new and fresh and you’re not carrying around any baggage of preconceived ideas or expectations. There is great value in being the new kid, the one who can ask the questions that everyone else is probably wondering, too, but has become too comfortable or too jaded to ask.
So, with that in mind, here are some tips on making the most of your first three months at work.
- Spend time building relationships. The currency of almost any organization is in the people and the relationships. If you accomplish nothing else in your first three months, make sure to spend time getting to know the people with whom you work. Set up coffee meetings, formal or informal chats, or other times to get to know as many people as possible. What are their stories? What did they do before this role? How do they spend their time at work and outside of work? What gets them excited about work and what makes them the most frustrated? How can you support them in accomplishing their goals? What advice do they have for you? When you are a new professional, it can be hard to see any commonality with your older co-workers, but don’t let that stop you from getting to know them. You will soon learn that relationships are key to your success at work.
- Get clear on goals and expectations. By the end of your first three months, you should have a good amount of clarity about what is expected of you at work. This includes expectations for engagement – how and when you show up every day, how you should communicate with people internal and external to the organization, how you should ask for time off, and other perhaps unspoken rules of behavior – and also expectations for the type of work you should be producing. What does a “successful” employee look like and act like? What are the goals of your organization? What are your goals and how will they be measured? Don’t make assumptions about these items. Ask your manager these questions and ask for feedback from your manager and others on the work that you are doing.
- Develop habits and routines. Being a regular, 8-5, working professional is a routine unlike anything you have ever done before. Work-life doesn’t happen in one and two-hour bursts of activity. It often occurs in nine and ten-hour blocks, five to six days a week. Not only will this schedule impact the rest of your life (when you will get groceries, do your laundry, exercise, sleep and so on), it also impacts how you get work done. The first three months of work is a great time to try out and start to adopt some habits and routines for productivity. This includes both when you show up (on time or early), when you leave (on time or late), how you set and manage priorities, and how you use tools such as calendars and email systems to organize your work. What worked for you in college may not work as well at work. Pay attention to how you are spending and using your time.
- Figure out who the “important” and “smart” people are. As you are building those relationships with your colleagues, pay attention to whom others value as important or powerful. Typically, this isn’t the loudest person in the room or the person with the biggest title. Instead, the important people are the ones that have access and credibility, the people others listen to; these are the people with whom you want to align yourself. Similarly, you need to figure out who knows what they are talking about, who has done their homework, and who knows how to get things done. The first three months are a great time to watch, to listen, and to learn. As you are building relationships, ask people whom they think the most important people are. Pay attention to what you hear.
- Learn all that you can. One way that you make yourself credible and smart is by learning all that you can about your organization, your industry, and your role. Read up on the issues and trends affecting your work. Figure out who the key players are, who are the ones doing something innovative or entrepreneurial. If you are working somewhere that uses lots of acronyms or jargon, learn them. If you need to know how to use a specific piece of technology to do your work, learn how to use it. Get familiar with the organizational structure and the rules of behavior, both written and unwritten. You won’t be the most experienced or talented person there, but there’s no excuse for not doing your homework.
Tools and Resources
Speaking of homework, throughout your professional career, you will become familiar with the industry, organization, and role-focused tools and resources that will be helpful to your career progression. These may include in-house trainings and mentoring programs, online courses and certifications, or even graduate school. You should get to know the particular trade and industry organizations and professional associations which support the work that you do; many of these will have a young professional track (and possibly even a discounted membership fee) which you should explore joining. At minimum you should become familiar with the publications that are specific to your field.
All of that is work that you can start to do right now. As well, I would also like to share some Wake Forest resources which have been created just for you.
- Alumni Personal & Career Development Center (alumni.opcd.wfu.edu). Here you will find stories about Wake Forest alumni and their career paths, career development advice pieces on everything from updating your resume to seeking out mentors to effective management practices, access to career coaching, job boards, information on getting connected to the Wake Forest network, and more.
- @LifeAfterWake on Twitter and Instagram. This is where you will find our most up-to-date information on resources, tools, news, and events to support your professional development and career path.
- Beyond the Forest e-newsletter (alumni.opcd.wfu.edu/e-newsletter/). Sign up for our e-newsletter and every other month we will put targeted advice, resources, and upcoming events right in your inbox.
- Wake Forest Alumni LinkedIn Group. This is where you will find job postings for Wake Forest alumni, tools and resources, and information on events, as well as get connected to thousands of fellow alumni for advice and networking.
What if I’m Still Searching or Going to Graduate School?
Finally, a note for those of you who may still be searching for that first professional role, or perhaps are headed to graduate school and feel like all of this work stuff doesn’t apply to you yet. First, for those of you still searching, please know that it is perfectly normal. While Wake Forest has great first destination outcomes for its graduates, far exceeding its peers, it is worth remembering that those numbers reflect the first six months post-graduation. Although it would be nice to be able to say that all of our graduates are employed on the day of graduation, that’s simply not realistic. Not every employer recruits for new positions at the same time each year. If, for example, you’re interested in museums, education, social service organizations, or even some smaller corporate organizations, you’re likely going to be looking at “just in time hiring.” What does that mean? These organizations fill a need only when it comes available, and that doesn’t necessarily happen in May each year.
Second, you may still be figuring out what you want to do. Maybe you were so occupied with school that you’ve only now started to think about next steps. Maybe you were traveling. Maybe you’re still trying to narrow down what it is you want to do. All of this is OK. And, you still have the support of the Wake Forest Office of Personal & Career Development, and as you now know, the Alumni Personal & Career Development Center to figure out those next steps. Call us at 336.758.5902 or email us (firstname.lastname@example.org) and let’s set up an appointment to make a plan and find the next step for you.
Some of you aren’t “employed” because you’ve decided to go to graduate school. This is a fine choice, and one that I made when I graduated from Wake Forest many years ago. But just because you’re still going to be in school doesn’t mean that none of this applies to you. In fact, being a graduate student is really nothing like being an undergraduate. You need to approach graduate school like it’s your job, because that’s what it is. Think about how you will build relationships, get clear on goals and expectations, develop habits and routines to help you to be successful, figure out who the important and the smart people are, and learn as much as you can. It all still matters!